Why this Industry Needs Fewer “Salespeople”

Piggybacking on the advice for finding a good insurance agent, I figured I’d take some soap box time this week to roll out a few additional thoughts on the industry. I’ve also thoughtfully provided pointers to assist consumers with avoiding certain pitfalls, meanwhile hopefully inspiring some agents out there to renounce the dark side and get up in the morning ready to work for nobler causes.

Oh this isn't a “Sales” Job

Brandon told me a story not too long ago about a sales manager who said those very words to a candidate he was trying to recruit.  She (the candidate) took his word for it and entered the business only to discover that it was a lot harder when it came to making money than her last desk job and subsequently exited the business within a few months.

However, the sales manager was telling the truth…kind of. My job isn’t a sales job; it’s a marketing job. What’s the difference? Aren’t marketers just really good liars?

Perhaps the term “marketing” in the traditional sense isn’t the best way to describe what we (agents) do. For better or worse, it’s really a business of shameless self-promotion. However, for the sake of brevity, we’ll just stick with the term “marketing.”

Sales, on the other hand, is all about trying to convince people that what you have is what they want and that you have a limited inventory of whatever it is you’re selling, so they’d better get it quick!

That’s not the case in this business.

Sure, there are some who work for fringe-type captive companies that have a limited basket of goods (probably best to steer clear of these, by the way), but for the most part, agents  have the autonomy to offer whatever business they want.

So, the trick is figuring out how to reach out to people and promote the practice, eventually (hopefully) turning them into clients.  It can take a long time to achieve this with any consistency.

How do agents market?

Agents market in a bunch of ways, and these three are the most common.

  1.  The Project 100 – If you’ve ever been recruited to sell insurance, you’ll chuckle or potentially break out in a cold sweat recounting your experience with this nifty little booklet.  For those of you who don’t know, it’s a booklet for new agents to inventory every person they know – family, friends, old co-workers, etc. Typically, your agency or sales manager or trainer sent you home with this at the end of your first day of training. They don’t tell you why or what the purpose is – they just ask you to complete it and bring it back in the morning.

Then, the next day after teaching you what to say on the phone, they'll have you pull out your list and call all these people to let them know you just started a new business and you'd love to get together with them to show them all about the type of work you're doing.

Basically, this is the Agency's way of ensuring you'll sell something to help them offset the cost of training you.  The upside(for them)–you'll likely flunk out of the business in a few months but they'll get to keep the business you wrote on your friends and family.  It's a dirty little secret in our industry and it's been going on for decades this way.  Recruiting new agents and having them go through this basic step is revenue generation tool unto itself.

Did I mention that when you've called to schedule the appointments with your friends and family, you'll then be told by your manager that you have to take along one of the more senior agents from the office to make sure you do a “good job” for your friends and family(I hope you can detect the sarcasm)?  Yep, it always makes for an awkward moment when you show up at your Uncle's house with a complete stranger who tries to guilt him into buying life insurance.

Not to worry, you'll burn through that initial 100-200 folks on your list pretty quickly using this technique.  Then your sales manager will likely berate you for not getting enough referrals from those people who were gracious enough to take time out of their schedule to listen to your awful sales pitch.  See, during those initial meeting your true goal is to get referred to a handful of people that your friends and family know, so that you can call those people and get in to meet with them.

What's wrong with that?

You’re not referable at this point in your career.

Don’t feel bad. It’s not that you’re a bad person; it’s just that you don’t know anything yet. The only training you’ve gotten thus far is sales training – how to set appointments over the phone, how to overcome objections, how to make small talk about the pictures on the wall, etc. You don’t actually need to know anything about how the products really work – you’ll figure all that stuff out as you go along (supposedly, if you last that long).

That’s why you’re going to be taking those veteran agents along with you to your appointments, so they can teach you how it’s done. And, they only take 50% of the commission for “helping you out.”

Genius – for the agency manager and the veteran agents, anyway.

  1.  Cold calls – After you’ve alienated all your friends and family by trying to sell them life insurance, your agency manager will throw a phone book, Chamber of Commerce directory, or other compiled list of business owners and professionals on your desk and tell you to start “dialing for dollars.”

I’m won’t go into that much detail about this “strategy” as there really isn’t much point. If I know you, dear reader, you love getting sales calls out of the blue as much as I do.

Truth be told, I don’t mind getting calls from people who have something to offer, are honest, keep it short, and don’t try to act like my best friend. Everyone has to generate new business somehow or another, so I’m not diametrically opposed to cold-calling.

However, I do think there are right and wrong ways to do it, and 99% of the sales world seems to favor the wrong ways.

  1.  Direct Response Marketing – Typically, this is done through advertising in publications, on websites, or through direct mail campaigns. The basic premise is that the agent is offering some sort of information for free in exchange for permission to contact you in the future.

For example, you might remember getting offers for your free road atlas from an insurance company. Who uses a road atlas anymore? Do I hear crickets chirping?

Early on in my career, I worked with an agency that did this sort of mailing for the road atlas. We had tons of people who responded to get their free stuff, but they had no interest at all in talking about insurance. It turns out that a free road atlas is not enough to win the hearts, minds, and business of every potential customer.

It’s just as logical as the company who want to sell me a pest control contract sending me a free offer for a tin of chocolate chip cookies. Now, I love chocolate chip cookies, so I send back the business reply checking off the box that says “Send me the cookies!”

The next thing I know, some guy’s calling me and wanting to come by to deliver my cookies, and when he shows up, he wants to talk about who I currently have my pest control contract with.

Do you see the absurdity?

In my mind, any agency that uses such a tactic has already tarnished its credibility by starting off the relationship in this way. People aren’t stupid, and they’ll quickly see through the scheme.

Brandon and I believe strongly in the use of direct response marketing to initiate new relationships with prospective clients.

However, we’re very clear about what we have to offer, and it’s typically something educational about a particular topic that interests the client. Also, our solutions are closely tied to that initial offer, so there’s no misleading, no grasping at ways to start a conversation with people.

Sales Is Not The Problem

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with sales. Every business has to make them in order to survive. The problem is the lengths to which salespeople are willing to go to make a sale happen.

When you’re focused on closing, overcoming objections, positioning, and persuading, you’re not focused on the most important aspect of acquiring new business – getting to the truth.

If I always hide behind my sales mask, I’m not opening myself up to have a simple conversation with another human being. Sometimes, salespeople forget that the person sitting across the table or on the other end of the phone is human.

Maybe we should just focus on communicating one person to another?

Let’s have an open and honest dialogue without any artificial sales pressure. Assuming what you are providing has value, sales happen as a natural result of being authentic and patient while educating your clients and answering their questions.








4 thoughts on “Why this Industry Needs Fewer “Salespeople””

  1. Brantley, I don’t see a lot of comments on your blog, but I wanted you to know I am not an insurance agent but I REALLY enjoy reading your blog and listening to the podcast. I am learning a great deal about how your industry works from the things you write here, and I am privileged to know some agents who have shown your level of integrity and commitment to the client. I’ve also let them know how helpful your blog has been in educating me so perhaps they can refer others here to learn.

    Your distinction between the “sales and marketing” aspect of the industry and what I consider the more proper (perhaps not as common) “understand the client’s needs, build a relationship with the client, and show them how your well understood solutions satisfy their needs” aspect is the difference between amateur and professional.

    People do business with people they know, like, and trust. Those who do not learn that poison the well for all the rest in sales.

    • Glad you enjoy the blog Jeff! It’s always good to know that the things you pour so much energy into are well received by other people.

  2. Hi-

    I’ve spent a few hours on your website and for the most part have found the content to be well written with the exception of some spelling and grammatical issues- which I feel has nothing to do with your intelligence. I read the above piece and I see that you poke holes/fun in how most people get their start in this business but what I don’t see is any real direction as to how you would suggest new people in your business get started? If you are going to make a statement in your title, my suggestion is to offer alternatives to what the “industry” norm is for starting a career in this business.

    In addition, you don’t seem to like the blanket statements made about the product that you write so much about. My suggestion is to tread lightly when doing the same about your industry’s training or their marketing plans for their new associates. When you’re discussing insurance companies ploys that they seek out candidates just to sell their families- I would urge you to see the persistency issues that I would assume plague your industry. If my memory serves me right- high persistency is a crucial aspect to your products performance. I would go out on a limb and say a large majority of lapses has to do with unsuccessful agents exiting the business…

    • James,

      Thank you for your comments. Yes, I’m quite sure we have numerous mistakes in regards to grammar and spelling–sometimes we catch them and sometimes we don’t. Fortunately, most of our readers seem to be more concerned with substance and less concerned about style.

      I’m not sure I fully comprehend your statements in regard to “treading lightly” as it relates to our industry, it’s training and/or marketing plans for new associates? We have both seen those “training programs” from the inside. We’re not writing about what we’ve heard, we’re writing about what we’ve seen and experienced firsthand.

      Persistency is an important component to product performance. And you’re right, persistency problems as a whole are made worse by the high turnover of new agents in the business. I guess we agreee on that? However, the reason that rate of failure hasn’t improved over the years as the industry refuses to set aside is archaic marketing tactics and “training programs” for new associates. Selling policies to your family, doesn’t increase your likelihood for success.


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